Artists in all media confront a dreary future of more competition for diminished rewards, a collection of new studies finds.
Hamstrung by a decline in real earnings nearly five times that of professions in general and with more and more people entering creative fields, artists vanish uncounted and unaccounted for into such occupations as restaurant waiter or waitress and taxicab driver.
"What I see is massive numbers of the supply side (of arts professionals) coming out of our colleges and universities and very few jobs that are paying jobs and are available," said Milton Rhodes, president of the New York-based American Council for the Arts, which is publishing the new results.
"The economist would say that's the way supply and demand works, but the truth of the matter is that, if you aren't discovered (in the arts), you never have a chance to really show your stuff and bring to the fore the talent that's there."
The studies also show that the disparity between earnings of men and women employed in the same or nearly identical arts jobs is greater than in the American work force at large. One study of earnings trends and patterns between 1970 and 1980 found that while 75% of dancers are women, they earned only 66% the amount male performers get, while women painters and sculptors average less than half of what men earn.
Moreover, the new research, which draws on government and private data, finds that available statistical tools have failed to monitor arts-employment patterns and trends to such an extent that reliable conclusions are often impossible to make.
For instance, government data released earlier this year by the National Endowment for the Arts show that unemployment among actors and directors increased last year from 7.7% to 10.6%, but was still down from a historic high of 15.7% in 1983. In contrast, a spokesman for the Screen Actors Guild said that 85% of the union's members are out of work at any given time. The union says that 80% of its 110,000 members are forced to earn living expenses working in other fields.
California Institute of the Arts has played a pioneer role in the still-small movement to establish arts courses oriented toward business practices, money management and employment enhancement. The Valencia school said that a survey of its alumni found 90% reporting that they are doing at least some work in the arts. Underscoring how difficult it is to track how many artists actually earn their livings in creative fields, CalArts said only 69.8% of its graduates said they were actually employed in a field related to their majors.
The only existing national databases with raw materials for such surveys are maintained by the federal Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the official figures, experts involved in the new research agree, are flawed because do not identify many arts professionals who are not employed full time in creative fields.
They also include bizarre classification criteria in which, for instance, theater and motion-picture directors and actors are lumped together in one group but musicians are split arbitrarily between those playing in "restaurants and nightclubs" or "bands and orchestras" with no regard to which of them may be recording.
That the economic and employment picture in creative professions should be so unfavorable appears to defy otherwise healthy financial circumstances for the arts in general. But John P. Robinson, a sociology professor and director of the Survey Research Center at the University of Maryland, contends that the situation presents artists with a significant anomaly.
"This suggests an interesting and familiar trend as far as artists in America are concerned," Robinson concluded in a new book of essays and reports on the condition of American artists. It is, he argued, "a trend which may be summarized as 'more interest, less money.' It might also be characterized as 'more competition, less profit.' "
Robinson said it would be a mistake to place extensive trust in hard statistics on arts employment. He said the few figures that are available may be suspect because government statistical categories simply aren't specific enough to evaluate what artists may be doing.
"This field is completely in a vacuum. There are no answers to many of the questions," he said in a telephone interview. "How many people are recorded in the design field but who are designers of store windows? It's very hard to know what's been happening."
The new reports, including one essay by the acting director of the research office at the National Endowment for the Arts, are included in "The Modern Muse: The Support and Condition of Artists," a new anthology that grew out of a seminar on artist conditions held in Baltimore last year.